Justice Blinded

          The Department of Justice overrode a sentencing recommendation by its frontline prosecutors. The defendant was the politically connected and presidential friend Roger Stone. The four prosecutors resigned from the case as a result.

          The Department of Justice (finally) said that it would not prosecute an FBI agent involved in the Russian investigation even though the president has asserted, without giving supporting evidence, that Andrew McCabe should be prosecuted.

          The Attorney General has appointed a special counsel for the confessed criminal and politically connected Michael Flynn, who is awaiting sentence. Reports indicate that other criminals who are connected to the president may be in line for preferential treatment.

          Attorney General William Barr claims that the president has never told him how to handle any case, and Barr has said that it is impossible for him to do his job when the president tweets about individual Department of Justice cases. This complaint comes as a shock since Barr may believe in one-person (probably one-man rule) at least as much as the president does.

          Trump in response tweets that he has not interfered but that he has the absolute right to order how criminal cases should be handled. He is the chief law enforcement officer, he pronounces.

          An open letter signed by almost two thousand former prosecutors and Department of Justice officials say that Barr should resign. Bill Barr has not.

          Swamp creatures are pardoned and set free. Others are pardoned whose supporters have connections with the president. And now we wait to see if the sentenced, frog-like Stone will be able to bound back to his bog without prison for his crimes against America. Ribbit. Ribbit.

          Just another week in the modern United States. It is hard to assess whether all this is a big deal or not because we have all become desensitized to Donald Trump and those around him.

          The events highlight, however, how imperfect our government is. It makes us realize that much of our sense of good government depends on norms that have been established over the decades and not on the Constitution itself. The Constitution does not prevent a president from breaking the norms of impartial justice that seem essential to a fair America and thus, does not prevent a president from moving us towards autocracy. And the events, rather predictably, also bring misleading or ignorant statements by kneejerk defenders of whatever the president does.

          More than a few “distinguished” commentators and hosts on Fox News say that William Barr must follow the president’s directions “because the Attorney General works for the president.” Another objecting to a headline from a news organization said that “Bill Barr can’t ‘intervene’ in a Department of Justice matter because the prosecutors work for the Attorney General.” Such statements, both wrong about who employs Justice Department officials, indicate how far along the path of the cult of personality we have traveled.

          Our federal government is complicated, but one thing is clear: Our chief executive is not the equivalent of the chief executive of a family business. An Attorney General and other federal officials do not work for the president. He does not pay them, and no one in the government openly pledges fealty to the president. To take office, an attorney general and other federal officials must vow: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office. So help me God.”

          The Attorney General is supposed to work for all of us (we do pay his salary after all), not for the president alone. The lines of authority, however, are muddled. The president does have a power akin to an employer; he can remove an attorney general. Furthermore, since the president has been given the constitutional duty to “take Care the Laws be faithfully executed. . . .” he can set the priorities and policies for the Department of Justice and the Attorney General. There has been an established norm that a president should not dictate how a particular case must be handled, but the president has the constitutional authority to break that norm. Of course, if what is commanded is unconstitutional, the AG cannot–consistent with the oath of office–carry out the command, but if the directive is only unwise, the AG can be expected to be removed if she does not comply with the presidential wishes.

          The president can then seek a new attorney general, but that also is complicated. The Constitution does not give the president the power to appoint any Attorney General he wants. Instead, it says that the president “shall nominate” candidates to be federal officials, but the Constitution goes on to say, “and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” the Attorney General and other federal officials. The appointment power is a joint one of the president and the Senate. The Constitution does not constrain the Senate in how it should use its power. It is only a norm or a convention that the Senate gives great deference to the presidential nominations. Nevertheless, the Senate has the right, for any reason it finds sufficient, to reject a particular person as Attorney General.

(Concluded February 24)

The Anti-American Fox News Commentator

Steve Hilton was on Fox News last Sunday. I watched for a bit. I find that watching anyone on Fox tends to tell me what others on that network are saying (independent minds seem to be rare there) and what other conservatives, in and out of government, are also saying. A little Fox-watching does double and triple duty. But I found it hard to gauge the worth of Hilton’s  ideas because he couched them in rhetoric that was ignorant and disturbing.

Hilton contended that those who were opposing actions by the president were “anti-democratic.” He went on to contend that Trump’s trade proposals, border security including a wall, and Trump’s foreign policies had been “explicitly” chosen by America and Americans in the last presidential election. He went on to suggest that those who opposed such policies were trying to subvert the rule of law.

It is safe to say that Americans did vote for these positions. But it is also safe to say Americans voted against them. Our presidential elections are not unanimous. However, it is not right to say that America voted for them. Trump was duly elected and is our president, but he was not democratically elected unless we are changing the meaning of “democratic.” In a democracy, the most votes win. Trump did not get a majority of the electorate. He did not even get the most votes. He was duly elected because we do not have democratic presidential elections, and since a democratic process did not choose him, it can’t be anti-democratic to oppose his policies. If Hilton is really serious about democracy, perhaps he should have concluded that it is democratic to side with the majority of the voters who did not vote for the president.

Even the minority of Americans who voted for Trump probably did not vote “explicitly” for all his policies. For example, some probably voted for him because of a promise to cut corporate tax rates but did not support his trade policies. Many may have voted for him because of a promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with something better but did not care about a Mexican-financed border wall. And so on.

It is also hard to say that an American explicitly voted for his policies when Trump’s promises shift. Hilton did not mention that if “America” voted for a wall, it also can be said that it voted for a wall paid for by Mexico. Did America vote for a “beautiful concrete” barrier, or also something less substantial and much like what had previously been erected and met with derision from Trump?

But even if Trump had gotten the support of a majority, it is demagogic to suggest that those opposing him are somehow against the rule of law. We do not live in a country where citizens are required to march in line behind the president. Our rule of law gives Americans the right to speak out and, [gasp,] oppose the president. Americans have done that from the time of George Washington until today. Even though Obama got voting majorities, many on Fox and other conservatives opposed and blocked his policies. Part of the reason this can be considered a free country is that we are not required to support a duly-elected president’s policies. As long as we use lawful methods, we have the right to try to defeat or prevent a president’s policies.

Hilton’s comments also ignore that while the president is not democratically elected, Representatives and Senators are. Unlike the president, a Representative and a Senator must get the most votes to be elected, and in our system, no one in Congress owes their first fealty to the president. They aren’t selected by the president, but by their constituents, and those constituents may have “explicitly” voted for a Senator or a Representative because there were promises to oppose presidential policies. These congresspeople, we could say, would be acting anti-democratically if they did not follow through on their pledges. (As I have written before, while each Senator is democratically elected, the Senate as a whole is not a democratic body. The people are not truly represented in the Senate; states are, and a distinct minority of the American people choose the majority in the Senate. (See https://ameliasdad.blog/?s=%22We%2C+the+People%22.) While Hilton seemed to be suggesting that opposition to presidential policies, or at least the policies of this president, was anti-American, that suggestion itself is anti-American.

And, of course, it seems more than a bit ludicrous to label as anti-democratic opposition to presidential policies when those policies often flip-flop. As Hilton adamantly maintained that Americans in the 2016 election supported the immediate removal of troops from Syria as Trump had announced but a few days earlier, Trump appointee (and the person who before Trump came along vied for the position as the scariest person in government) John Bolton was announcing that Trump’s unconditional position was not really the administration’s position. Then to make the president’s position even fuzzier, Trump asserted that he had never said that he was going to order an immediate removal of American troops from Syria. (As Warner Wolf, the sports reporter, used to say, “Let’s go to the videotape.”)

This all made me wonder about Hilton’s position. If I opposed Trump’s earlier position for the immediate removal of troops, was I being anti-democratic because Trump’s had pledged that withdrawal during his successful campaign? If America had explicitly chosen the immediate troops-out position, was Trump being anti-democratic by then announcing a different policy? If I were supporting the rule of law by supporting Trump’s first position, was I now un-American by opposing his new position?  And what should I conclude about Trump changing his positions?

I am not suggesting that Trump’s policies should be opposed because he was not democratically elected. Our president is never democratically elected. I am suggesting, however, that his policies should not be supported simply because he was elected under our strange electoral system and that opposing his policies is not anti-democratic or against the rule of law. To voice one’s opinion in support or in opposition and to act lawfully on that opinion is American.